Ministers should recall: pride comes before a fall

18th December 2015 at 00:00

Seeking a legacy is fool’s gold: so often it’s the bedfellow of hubris – but more of that sin later. Politicians, so journalists assure us, seek legacy initiatives as an essential platform for the next step in their career. Our experience in the public services suggests that the journalists are right. And unfortunately, too often one minister’s legacy is a whole profession’s burden. Just ask those working in the health service over the past 20 years. And for that matter, as the readers of this magazine know, ministers working in education have not been immune – our collective discomfort proves this.

Two Education Acts between 1944 and 1980 have been succeeded by more than 40 since: no secretary of state seems able to survive without an annual act of Parliament. We might have forgiven Michael Gove if he had stopped with the King James Bible, even though his promotion of a religious text might have got him suspended if he had been a teacher in the “Trojan Horse” schools.

But he didn’t stop there. The English Baccalaureate; synthetic phonics; a reform of the primary curriculum and assessment arrangements (which no parent I have spoken to understands); completely new GCSE grading; the end of coursework; the proscription of many BTEC courses; the list of change seems endless.

Nicky Morgan, we were promised, was going to consolidate but – rumoured to be interested in succeeding David Cameron – she already has one act racing through Parliament that threatens “coasting” schools with forced “academisation”.

But seeking legacy so easily leads to hubris; that kind of narcissistic confidence in your own almost supernatural powers which tempts some leaders to think they can do almost anything. Of course, it so often brings them down. Fred Goodwin at RBS comes to mind. The Daedalus Trust analyses “hubris syndrome”, listing 15 features. Seeing even a few of these signs is an amber warning:

They seek self-glorification;

They act to enhance their own personal standing;

They are excessively conscious of their own image;

They display messianic tendencies;

They believe “I am the organisation”;

They use the royal “we”;

They have excessive confidence in their own judgements and are contemptuous of others’ opinions;

They feel they are accountable only to history;

They believe unshakably that they will be vindicated;

They are out of touch, isolated;

They are restless, reckless and impulsive;

They are impractical, overlooking any possible unwanted outcomes;

They implement incompetently and fail to attend to details.

So, how do those of us in education measure up? Well, any self-respecting teacher knows that legacy lies in pupils’ lifetime achievements, as the regular TES “My Best Teacher” feature shows. Former pupils sometimes stop you in the street. Just occasionally it makes you shudder, as a Birmingham primary head confessed with a chuckle when he told me about the barrister recalling how the book written in Year 6 was a life-changing event, and the driver of a black saloon with a blaring ghetto-blaster who wound down the window, lifted his shades to reveal a gunshot wound and asked if “sir” needed “anyone sorting out”.

Even so, some heads are prone to hubristic tendencies, and heads of chains of schools – even CEOs of teaching alliances – are certainly at risk, just as chief education officers used to be. Some of those succumbed.

But teachers reading this following a Friday afternoon of teaching after a wet lunchtime? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, get your headteacher to read it, just as a gentle warning. And could someone pop it on Nicky Morgan’s desk, while we’re at it?

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